By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Lingua Latina revenit!
When Pope Francis spoke Latin at his inaugural Mass at St. Peter’s Square last month, most people listened to a translator or read subtitles. But La Entrada Middle School students in Mike Dumbra’s Latin class in Menlo Park picked out familiar phrases and vocabulary, thrilled to witness a rare modern example of spoken Latin.
“They enjoyed it,” says Dumbra. “They discussed the difference in pronunciation from the way we do it in class — classical pronunciation as it would have sounded 2,000 years ago. The Catholic Church pronunciation sounds more like Italian and the way Latin has been pronounced since the Middle Ages.”
While rarely spoken, Latin is alive, well and thriving in Dumbra’s class. The language for Romans, priests and geeks has become cool.
“I love Latin because you can learn a lot about English, and it helps with verb tenses and derivatives of English words,” says Tori Rarick, 13. “I love learning about Roman culture and traditions. Gladiators were always fighting each other; it’s interesting to see what they found entertaining.”
“I think it’s making a comeback,” says Dumbra, Las Lomitas Teachers Association. “And it never died. It simply evolved.”
De antiqua ad tempus novum (from ancient to modern times)
Latin spread throughout Europe as Romans conquered other cultures. However, those subject to Roman rule formed new languages as their own languages merged with Latin. These hybrid languages eventually evolved into French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Latin influenced the development of Old English more than any other non–West Germanic language.
Dumbra fondly calls English a “cousin” of Latin, while the other languages are direct descendents. Nonetheless, 50 percent of words in the English dictionary hail from Latin, he says.
Latin remained strong after the collapse of the Roman Empire in A.D. 476. During the Middle Ages and through the Renaissance, the Reformation and beyond, Latin was used as the language of the church and as a universal language for discussing education and scientific knowledge.
Latin’s renewed popularity in modern culture can be seen in the Harry Potter novels, for example, where the main characters and sorcerers’ spells have Latin names. Sheldon, the geeky character on “The Big Bang Theory,” supposedly studied Latin until fifth grade and frequently bandies about Latin phrases in hilarious ways.
Latin students feel as though they are learning a “secret language,” even though Latin meets the foreign language requirements of secondary schools and colleges.
“People are usually surprised when I tell them,” says Pat Su, a student at University High School in Irvine. “It makes me feel unique to be learning a dead language.”
“I laugh at that,” counters Josh Davis, Su’s teacher at University High School. “It’s not spoken, but it’s survived, so we don’t talk about Latin being dead in my classroom.”
To provide language relevancy, the first thing Davis teaches his students is how to cuss in Latin.
“I teach them words for scoundrel, but the real meaning is much worse than that,” he says. “But it makes them laugh and they understand Latin can be fun, not intimidating.”
Nova ingratia (a new popularity)
Latin is flourishing, says Davis, Irvine Teachers Association. Latin has increased from seven to 10 class sections in the last five years. His school’s chapter of the Junior Classical League, an organization for middle and high school students studying Latin, has increased to more than 200 students. Students attend conventions — sometimes in togas — to compete in everything from chariot races to catapult competitions. Some of his teams have gone on to compete at the national level.
“It’s a celebration of Roman culture. Going to the conventions gives them a social connection to what they are studying,” says Davis. “It’s not a requirement of the class, but more than 90 percent of students join for the fun activities.”
Davis’ students watched Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass and saw Latin take a role in modern history.
“We really enjoyed reading the Latin in the newspaper and hearing it during the Mass and recognizing that this was heard or read by over a billion people,” he says. “There is nothing dead about Latin.”
When Svetlana Lazarova joined the Latin Program in 1993 at Palm Springs High School, there were eight students enrolled in the program and no advanced classes. Today, more than 200 students are enrolled in six periods ranging from basic Latin to AP Latin IV. Lazarova voluntarily gave up her prep period to accommodate the increased demand, which happened after she actively recruited students to join.
“I don’t know why it’s so popular,” says the Palm Springs Teachers Association member. “But it looks at the whole child in a very classical way. It’s a safe haven for learning and knowledge. My students use Latin to explore humanity. They see themselves against the background of ancient times. They compare two different cultures and discover an underlying commonality between the Roman people of 2,000 years ago and what they see happening today. Love, imperialism and social issues have not changed much over time.”
Fortuna nobis vi animi tantum frenabitur
This quote by Aesop translates to: “The level of our success will be limited only by our imagination." And some students say they never imagined Latin would be so helpful in achieving success.
Brian Cook decided to enroll in Latin so he would do better on his SATs. The University High School student believes that four years of studying the language helped him attain high scores, and he is presently exploring college options.
“Latin really helped me figure out difficult English words on the test because I knew the derivatives,” says Cook. “I’m lucky they offer Latin at my school.”
Classmate Kate Sievers’ older brother convinced her to take Latin and follow in his footsteps. She says it has helped in more ways than just understanding word roots.
“I’ve got a group of friends and a support group in this classroom,” says Sievers. “We help each other with our struggles. We tutor each other. We repeat little phrases to keep us going. And its fun that nobody outside of this class knows what we mean.”